Open-net salmon farms on their way out of B.C. waters

·4 min read

The federal government is launching consultations on salmon farms with the aim of developing a concrete plan for removing open-net pens from B.C. waters.

Canada’s fisheries minister, Bernadette Jordan, was given the mandate to develop the plan by 2025, and today announced Parliamentary Secretary Terry Beech will lead the engagement with B.C. First Nations, the aquaculture industry, conservation groups and provincial government counterparts.

In an online press conference today, Beech described a sense of urgency to move forward but could not provide specific dates on when the transition will be achieved.

“I can tell you with certainty, this is not simply us having a consultation to build a plan,” Beech said. “We are beginning the transition now. We are going to be utilizing resources now.”

He added the migratory nature of wild salmon potentially impacted by net-pen farms dictates that communities throughout the province’s salmon-bearing watersheds will have a voice in the consultations.

The government is exploring the use of an area-based management approach to salmon aquaculture, meaning DFO will analyze the cumulative effects of multiple farms in any given area, versus a “cookie-cutter” approach, Allison Webb, director of aquaculture management said.

“We will also consider the specific conditions of those areas for things like timing windows for wild salmon that are migrating, and we can customize the conditions of licence for sea lice management to protect those wild stocks,” Webb said.

The plan will also be influenced by the Framework for Aquaculture Risk Management, which the ministry says is grounded in the precautionary approach. That document is now being finalized.

“We know that open-net pen fish farms affect wild stocks. Much of the debate is how much the farms affect those stocks, and what is an acceptable level of risk,” Beech said.

Conservation groups point to open net-pen salmon farms as reservoirs of harmful pathogens and parasites that pass to vulnerable migrating juvenile salmon.

The David Suzuki Foundation welcomed today’s announcement of a transition.

“Record low numbers of returning Fraser River sockeye this year show that urgent action is required and that removing open net-pen fish farms from the critical migration route for juvenile salmon in the Discovery Islands when they expire in December this year needs to be a part of the transition plan.”

Some groups are pushing for a transition to land-based tenures to avoid all potential contact with wild fish. Industry and government studies, however, reveal several pitfalls to this, including high costs, large environmental footprints and an inferior-tasting product, as stated in the federal government’s 2019 research, State of Salmon Aquaculture Technologies Study.

The other viable options are closed or semi-closed systems that provide a physical barrier between farmed salmon and the natural environment, and offshore farms still in the development stage.

Cermaq Canada is now experimenting with a semi-closed containment system in Clayquot Sound following positive trials in Norway.

John Paul Fraser, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association said he is optimistic the the right balance of industry needs and conservation interests will be found.

“Innovation and transition is always something we’ve been focused on,” he said. “Area-based management is a key transitional element that we’ve actually been pushing to government for a very long time, so we’re happy to see them moving on that.”

A government report from 2016, which the ministry is partly building upon in its current consultations, supports the doubling of sustainable Canadian aquaculture production within the next decade.

Beech said aquaculture is perfectly positioned to help drive economic growth, citing United Nations studies showing more than 50 per cent of global seafood comes from the aquaculture sector as wild stocks plateau or shrink do to over-fishing and mismanagement. He said salmon farms are an important part of the government’s blue economy strategy and an example of how the economy and environment go hand in hand.

A recent report commissioned by the BC Salmon Farmers Association states the industry is poised to invest $1.4 billion into innovation, technology and infrastructure in the province if provincial and federal governments provide a stable policy approach. Such an investment would generate $44 billion in economic output and create 10,000 jobs, according to the report.

The new consultations are separate from those already underway with some First Nations over whether to renew salmon farm licences in the Discovery Islands next month.

“I will not be providing any further details on how that’s going except to say it’s ongoing,” Beech said. “We need to chart a path for what happens once we get beyond those decisions in the Discovery Islands, and that’s what I’ll be working on.”

Beech will present an interim report to the minister this spring.

Quinn Bender, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince Rupert Northern View